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This issue: Contents
Tuesday, January 13th, 2015
  • Editor’s Note
  • WCHS News: Winter Ice Cream Social – This Saturday!
  • Photo of the Week: A Eulogy for the Boutwell House
  • Old News: Privy Profits
  • Featured Article: A Most Revered Resource?

Editor’s Note

If you remember the last issue of the Historical Messenger, our Featured Article discussed the short-sighted destruction of the beautiful Stillwater Union Depot. As it turns out, that selection has proved somewhat prophetic.

Just yesterday, Stillwater Township issued a demolition permit for the historic Boutwell House on Boutwell Road. In fact by the time you are reading this very sentence, the shattered remains of this 144 year old house may already be sitting in a landfill. Despite objections in the community, the property owner sees the house as an obstacle for converting the acreage into new housing development. Even after 50 years, Stillwater still mourns the loss of the Union Depot. Will today’s demolition lead to the same regret?

When pieces of our shared heritage are so callously discarded we must be re-inspired to protect the history that still remains. Whether that be the Old Stonebridge, the Washington County Courthouse, or even WCHS’ own museums. These aren’t just “old buildings”, they are our visible and physical link to the past. Every day of their lives the men and women who built Washington County ate, worked, loved, laughed, and sometimes even died in these places. I just hope that is not being taken for granted.

If you would like to help the Washington County Historical Society preserve the history that is under our care, please consider becoming a member. Thank you.

Okay, let me step down from my soapbox.

Be sure to come down to Mulberry Point in Stillwater this Saturday for our annual Winter Ice Cream Social! Check out our news story for the last minute details!

Head down to our Photo of the Week as we take a final look at the Boutwell House.

Curious how much money Stillwater was making from it’s public bathroom in the early 1900s? Well you and the 1912 readers of the Stillwater Messenger have something in common! You’re in for…or should I say, “urine” for a treat in today’s Old News!

And just because our History of Washington County is a great source of information on all the local communities in the county…that doesn’t necessarily mean that every account written on the subject is worth reading. Our Featured Article today will take a look at the controversy surrounding the earliest, and perhaps least factual, of these histories.

Want to learn more about the history of Washington County? “Like” WCHS on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Sean Pallas

Historical Messenger editor and Warden’s House Site Manager

WCHS News 

Winter Ice Cream Social – This Saturday!

On Saturday, January 17th, the Washington County Historical Society you to a Winter Ice Cream Social, which runs from Noon – 4:00 PM.

The weatherman says we’ll be hitting the 30s this weekend – well that’s practically summer! Don’t forget your suntan lotion and your beach towel!

Join your neighbors and fellow hearty Northerners for some free Leo’s Malt and Grill Shop Ice Cream, Root Beer from Lift Bridge Brewing, Hot Chocolate from Pub 112, and Daily Grind Coffee while we scoff at Father Winter’s best efforts to keep us indoors!

Chili from Leo’s will also be available for a nominal fee.

More Events

Photo of the Week

A Eulogy for the Boutwell House – ca. 1910 – Stillwater Township

Reverend William T. Boutwell came to Stillwater in 1847, settling on a piece of land two miles west of the city where in 1870 he would build the house discussed in the opening remarks and photographed above.

Once he settled in, he, along with Reverend J. C. Whitney, organized the First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater. Before Boutwell came to Stillwater, regular church services would feature only the occasional missionary who would preach a Sunday service. In addition to his work with the Presbyterian Church, Boutwell was the first chaplain for the Minnesota Territorial Legislature.

He was also a bit of an explorer. Headed by Henry Schoolcraft, Boutwell was a member of the party who formally discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Schoolcraft wished to give the small lake an appropriately dramatic name and suggested the Greek words for “True” and “Head”. But there was one issue, no-one in the group spoke Greek. Boutwell, however, did know Latin. “True Head” becomes “Veritas Caput” in Latin and the name “Itasca” was born from the combination of these two words.

Life on the frontier was hard. Boutwell and his wife had a total of nine children, several of whom died as infants. When visiting relatives in New England, the couple was persuaded to allow Boutwell’s brother to adopt two of their three living children. Instead of returning to the harsh pioneer life, they would remain in civilization.

In 1890, Rev. Boutwell told of a happy reunion took place on the front porch of the home photographed above:

“One day a stranger knocked at my door, and being admitted remarked that he knew my brother Clark at Nashua, N.H. I inquired his name, when he rose and said, ‘Father have you forgotten Ramsey, your son?’ I was dumbfounded. Could I be expected to recognize in the gray-whiskered man of 52 years the boy whom I had last seen at 15? It was a joyful meeting. After a time of mutual questioning, I stepped to the kitchen where Kate [Mrs. Jones] was busy and told her a gentleman had called who desired to see her. She replied that she had seen a fellow coming along the road whom she supposed to be a peddler; that she had no time or money for his gew-gaws; that later, if he still desired to see her, she would come in. When she entered the room I said, ‘This gentleman is from New England, and saw my brother Clark a few days ago. He approached, and taking her had grasped it with a firmness which is not warranted on first acquaintance, remarking on seeing her indignant expression, “Kate, don’t you know your own brother?”

“In 1852, I made my second and last visit to New England. The boy, now fifteen years of age, returned with me for a visit of three months. For thirty-seven years not one of the family except Hattie had seen him until he rapped at his father’s doors a few weeks ago.”

Boutwell would die in his home a few months later.

Boutwell made tremendous sacrifices for Washington County. Instead of joyously admitting a long-lost son, the front parlor of this historic home will soon be entertaining a bulldozer.

It’s absolutely tragic that this short article and a single photograph is the best memorial I can create for this piece of Washington County’s heritage when it deserves so much more.

Full Image

Old News 

Privy Profits

Whew. Thanks for sticking with me so far. I’ll be the first to admit that today’s e-newsletter has been pretty heavy.

Quick! We need something to lighten the mood! How about we see how much money Stillwater was making off people’s…erhm..bodily functions…back in 1911? Perfect!

Rest Room Prospering – Stillwater Messenger – January 13, 1912

People of Stillwater will be glad to know that the rest room in this city is nearly self-supporting. A detailed statement of the treasurer discloses the fact that the receipts for the past year, including donations, amounted to $3,009.02*, while the disbursements were $2,929.60, leaving a balance in the treasury of $79.42. The rest room is an institution that does credit to this city to maintain, and a great convenience to farms’ wives and children as well as residents of this city. It will require a helping hand yet a while, but may soon be able to stand alone and be entirely self-supporting.

*$3,000 in 1911 is about $75,000 in today’s dollars.

Featured Article

A Most Revered Resource?

by Don Empson

When doing any kind of historical research in Washington County, one of the first sources usually consulted is the History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley, published in 1881. This is the earliest of the Washington County histories, and generally revered as an unquestioned source of historical fact.

But think again. Let’s look a little closer at this “history.” Usually the author is cited as the Reverend Edward D. Neill, a Protestant clergyman, the founder of Macalester College, and an eminent historian in early Minnesota. However, a close look at the title page reveals that this volume includes a work by Neill entitled Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota, but Neill had nothing to do with writing the history of Washington County. In fact, the proper author citation would be North Star Publishing Company, Minneapolis. Using Neill’s name was an intentional effort by the publisher to both expand and legitimize the book. The fact that most readers believe that Neill is the author of this book also confirms the publishers successfully mislead many readers.

The North Star Publishing Company, or as it was sometimes referred to, Warner & Foote, was a business venture of Charles M. Foote (1849-1899) and George E. Warner (1826-1917). The impetus for their business was undoubtedly the success of the Andreas Atlas of Minnesota, which had been sold by subscription widely throughout Minnesota in 1874. This Atlas, with some history included, was the first general history of the state that was published as a commercial venture. It was sold by book agents traveling around the state soliciting orders in advance. For an extra payment, the subscriber could have a picture of his house or business included along with a caption. Typical of the subscription business with its practice of obtaining orders in advance, the agent probably had a very attractive mock-up of the book prepared to show prospective buyers and persuade them to order a copy. Having an beautiful sample may also have unrealistically raised the customers’ expectations of a attractive cover.

Having witnessed the success of the Andreas Atlas, Warner and Foote took their business to a more local level, and published a series of county maps in the late 1870’s, including, among others, the Map of Freeborn County, 1878; Map of Fillmore County, 1878; Map of Blue Earth County, 1879; and Map of Carver County in 1880.

They expanded their catalog to books, and in 1881, they published, using the pre-sale method, A History of Hennepin County, A History of Ramsey County, A History of Dakota County, and our History of Washington County. Today there is a tendency to consider these books as factural, and they hold a revered status as reliable reference sources. However, the local Stillwater subscribers were not pleased when they received their $10 (3 days wages) copy of A History of Washington County.

The first howls of discontent were recorded in the Stillwater Messenger of August 27, 1881:

“There are several hundred persons (and more to hear from) in our city and county who have within the past two weeks made a new and unusually solemn vow never to buy a book or anything else of a canvassing agent. Some six or eight months ago a squad of well-dressed smooth-talking fellows visited every nook and corner of our county as well as the St. Croix valley, soliciting subscriptions for a history of Washington county. Twelve or fifteen hundred persons were thus induced to place their autographs upon the pages of a book, agreeing to pay $10 on receipt of the contemplated volume. Two weeks ago the work of delivery commenced, and simultaneously a tremendous howl arose from the throats of persons who had subscribed for the work. The book is probably all that was promised, but subscribers do not find it all their fancy painted it. Quite a number refuse to take it, while others have paid the requisite X and have charged it up to experience account.”

A couple of weeks later the Mayor went into action as described in the Stillwater Messenger of September 10th,1881:

“Get Even With A Book Agent

A few weeks ago an alleged history of Washington county was handed to his excellency mayor Matthews (which his front name is Sam). Sam didn’t know what he had done to merit such an infliction, and declined to accept the book until he was shown a certain other less pretentious but more “binding” volume in which his autograph appeared, though he had no recollection of ever placing it there. He surrendered unconditionally and also surrendered a ten dollar note. Now if there is anything which harrows up Sam’s very bottom soul it is the thought that he has been taken in some business transaction. For ten days or more he busied his brain in an endeavor to devise some scheme whereby he could get even with that book agent. At length a “happy thought” occurred to him and he proceeded to “book it.” Inquiry of the city clerk elicited the fact that the deliverer of books in question had never obtained a license for such business, and an examination of the ordinances revealed the further fact that the fee for such licenses may not exceed $200. Mr. book agent was speedily notified that he was liable to arrest if he delivered any more books without procuring a license. On receiving this notification the b.a. made application for a license, but on learning that the price was $200 he was in a quandary. He had 100 books yet to deliver to Stillwater subscribers, but in the absence of instructions he did not feel authorized to invest $200 in license. He is still in a quandary, and one hundred deluded citizens of Stillwater hope the concern will fail before the $200 is paid. Other victims wish the license had been $2000 and Sam had thought about the matter before they paid for the evidence of their folly.”

Other communities were no more enthusiastic.

The Hudson True Republican wrote:

“It is distressing to hear the groans of our people, as they hand over ten dollars for what purports to be a history of this vicinity, which they were deluded into subscribing for last summer. They felt as though bathing in salt water would be as beneficial.”

The Stillwater Messenger editorialized on September 17th:

” There is a general desire that the license for foreign book agents be placed uniformly at $200, and that any agent who attempts to canvass for or deliver any book without a license be fined $200 for every offense. There are parties living in this city, honest and deserving, who can supply our citizens with all the books they are hungering to subscribe for, and even they are not getting rich so fast as to be proud.”

The following week, the Messenger quoted the Hudson newspaper again:

“It is pretty near time that another history of the St. Croix county was canvassed for. It will require a young man whose brass extends below his face, and renders him shot and leather proof, if he interviews any victim of the Minneapolis fraud.”

Meanwhile in Stillwater:

“Some fifteen or twenty of the subscribers for the snide history of Washington county have combined to resist payment. They propose to stand by each other and will spend several times the cost of the book before they will pay for what they consider an unmitigated fraud.”

After trying to arrest the book agent and having him escape to Hudson, court action was taken in Stillwater:

“The case of the city against J. H. Chandler, charged with the crime of attempting to deliver a so-called history of Washington county to a deluded subscriber without a license was on Wednesday again postponed one week.”

But to no avail:

“The case of the city v. J. H. Chandler, charged with delivering or attempting to deliver a snide history of Washington county without a license, was on Wednesday dismissed in the mucilage on the ground that the ordinance requiring such license was in conflict with the constitution or something of the kind.”

The book company retaliated: The Daily Sun of December 20, 1881, lists a suit in municipal court:

“North Star Publishing Co. vs. Abram T. Gillispie. This is an action brought to recover for a book, the “History of Washington County” which defendant claims was not what it was represented to be.”

Unfortunately, we cannot discern the specific complaints about the book because the municipal court archives no longer exist; some irony for current historians who rely on documentation. But the book itself provides some evidence for the extreme controversy that raged when it was published. It’s likely that the physical appearance of the completed volume did not fulfill the promise of those who solicited its purchase. The sample version promoted to potential subscribers may not have matched the final product. Reality and expectations collided in an uproar.

A close reading of the contents reveals minimal original factual research, specifically about Washington County. Approximately one-third of the book is “filler:” Neill’s Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota and Williams’ Outlines of the History of Minnesota are long sections with emphasis on state-wide information; both were published many years previously. These two works were also used in the other county histories published by Warner and Foote.

There is also a question about the accuracy and objectivity of the personal profiles in the book. Those subscribers wishing their biographies in the county book paid an extra fee — and they submitted the information they wished published. Those who could not afford the fee, or who did not care about their image for posterity, were not included. Arguably, this could be considered a limitation of many subsequent history texts.

Most of the “historical” information, specifically about Washington County, was probably written by a local journalist/writer/person hired to compose this county history. The text is flowery/romantic description, rather than hard facts that current researchers could rely on for accuracy. In the book’s favor, there are sections that appear to be based on interviews with some of the residents of the time — some of whom also bought a place in the subscriber biographical section. However, many of the local facts in this book were taken directly from the earlier newspapers to the extent this history could be used as an index to the area newspapers.

Is this a good history? The subscribers at the time certainly did not think so. Does this book hold up as a reliable source for contemporary historians? What do you think? And would you be willing to pay $300 or so for the book — today’s equivalent of the original $10 price?


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Membership is one way that you can help support the Washington County Historical Society. Your membership helps us collect, preserve, and disseminate the history of Washington County for county residents and visitors in the belief that a historical perspective enhances our understanding of community and sense of place.

Benefits of membership:

  • FREE admission to the Warden’s House Museum in Stillwater and Hay Lake Museum Complex in Scandia
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  • FREE use of WCHS library and research center
  • Subscription to Historical Whisperings, the society’s quarterly newsletter
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  • Knowing that your membership dollars support the preservation of our treasured past for generations to come

The Washington County Historical Society has depended on membership ever since it was formed in 1934. Please show your support for the organization by becoming a member today.

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Washington County Historical Society

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Washington County Historical Society collects, preserves, and disseminates the history of the county and state of Minnesota.

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